BOOK (1989)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 May, 2011, 12:00am


The Joy Luck Club
by Amy Tan
G.P. Putnam's Sons

On its release, Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club ignited a flowering of Asian-American writing on intergenerational themes, and a wave of interest in the genre that is still rippling through the world of publishing today.

Hailed by critics and readers for its poetic lyricism, tenderness and insights into the frailty and durability of family relationships this fantastically detailed tapestry reveals the stories of four remarkable mothers and their children. As the characters' personal histories weave through the late 20th century, the reader marvels at their spirit and the power of a mother's love.

The story opens in San Francisco in 1949, when four Chinese women bond over yum cha and mahjong, and share their respective tales of loss and hope. The big decisions faced by each Joy Luck Club member are always agonising or heart-breaking.

The original founder of the club is Suyuan Woo, who started an earlier association with the same name in Guilin to buoy the spirits of herself and her friends during the the second world war, a conflict that took her husband's life. Woo dies before the novel's chronological starting point, and so her history is pieced together by her American-born daughter, Jing-mei.

Information gaps drive the flow. The daughters try to live their lives, while missing many of the familial fragments that their mothers hold onto from their rarely-spoken-of lives in China. Meanwhile, the mothers seek love and filial piety from their daughters, but the cultural divide widens the generation gap. As each member of this club reveals her secrets, and questions the mysteries of the past, the narrative threads become ever-more entwined.

Tan is an astute storyteller, never more so than when conveying the tightening of matriarchal ties or the coltishness of ethnic Chinese daughters both liberated by and confined in Western society.

Meanwhile, all these beautifully drawn characters attempt to understand what it means to be a Chinese-American, whether born in China or in the US. Each life story (four mothers, four daughters) is presented as a vignette, leading the reader through vales of tears and clouds of ethereal hope.

This brilliant debut is also a semi-autobiographical work of catharsis. The California-born Tan's parents were Chinese immigrants. Circumstances forced Tan's own mother, Daisy, to leave behind in Shanghai her three daughters from a previous marriage. Daisy's anguish whistles through this like a melancholic autumn wind.

Tan later explored mother-daughter relationships in similarly acclaimed works, such as 1991's The Kitchen God's Wife and 2001's The Bonesetter's Daughter.